The Right Kind of Opportunity for Youth

What happens when you give youth an opportunity? It all depends on the kind of opportunity. 

There are programs all over the country focused on helping disconnected youth get real-life training on the job, in addition to critical soft skills. These programs are providing the key. Some are run nationally with local chapters, while others are born and grounded locally by community members who are masters at identifying the kinds of opportunities these youth need in order to unlock their passion, drive and success. 

Two of the biggest organizations doing this work nationally are YouthBuild (read my reflections from a board of director’s event that I took part in) and YearUp. YearUp was recently featured in a 60 Minutes segment, featuring interviews with CEO Gerald Chertavian and program graduates. 

Disadvantaged students who go through YearUp’s rigorous program (six months of intensive skill-building followed by a six-month internship with a Fortune 500 company) are successful because of Chertavian’s formula for success in the corporate world: “You hire for skills, and fire for behavior.” YearUp takes motivated students who are lacking in both areas and pushes them forward on both fronts.

Jay Hammond, one of the YearUp students, explained the payoff:  “You earn money? You get college credits? And … get an internship? That was the biggest moment for me because I realized I’ve had potential. And that [me] taking this chance and them taking a chance on me, is gonna change my life. And it has.”

Here are some other programs doing excellent work to get opportunity youth on the path to success in college, work and life.

  • GOOD and The California Endowment’s new program, Pathfinder Fellowship, provides real world work experience to a fairly novice group of young people who had never held full time jobs. As the first few weeks passed, the scope of what could and needed to be taught widened quickly. Simply instilling the soft skills necessary to survive in the working world became a quick focus for these young gems of the Los Angeles community. (I learned about this program via this article from GOOD).
  • Café Reconcile in New Orleans, La., where a life skills and job training program assists young people (ages 16 to 22) from severely at-risk communities who want to make a positive change in their lives. They receive training through a 21st Century Success Principles curriculum, along with culinary training and a chance at four-week internships at local restaurants, hotels, hospitals and universities.
  • CUPs (Creating Unlimited Possibilities), a nonprofit coffeehouse founded by a Baltimore couple who combined two desires: 1. Open a business in a low-income community that could be an oasis for residents, and 2. Employ teens and help them build skills to succeed in the workforce.

    Co-owner Brian Gray explained the breadth of the challenges for their program (and surely the challenges of the programs listed above) in connecting with the youth who come through the doors. “Once on the job, young people begin to get excited,” he said in a great Chronicle of Philanthropy spread on young men of color. “Then they often get frustrated, angry and feel stupid because they are learning these important skills for the first time. There’s a sense of, ‘Why didn’t anyone ever teach me about this?’ It’s a fair question.”

    He and his wife/co-owner know the hurdles that many of their workers and their workers’ peers must navigate. “They mostly know the streets. … They can’t multitask, make eye contact, do conflict resolution, or deal with the public,” says Gray.

The bottom line: A job alone = failure. Life skills alone often = failure. But, job + life skills = success. The learning opportunities that work best for these youth are those that set high expectations, provide clear pathways and benchmarks for success, respect life histories and challenges (but don’t allow them to be excuses for failure), and expect setbacks but don’t give up on students as long as they “have the drive.”

Businesses are learning this, and creating effective partnerships with community and national organizations to offer well-rounded programs. So why are schools still behind in incorporating soft skills into curricula?

What programs are doing this work in your community? I would love to hear about them; please share them in the comments.